Picturebook Journey, from idea to published…

…told mostly through images. Click on any image for a closer look.

New-Kid-1The idea for The New Kid started when I observed a small girl in The Happy Pear coffee shop. Something about the way she was wearing her coat resonated with me, reminded me of myself as a child… the above on-the-spot sketches and first version of text are dated 3rd January 2010.

New-Kid-2Early draft of the text which I printed out and immediately covered in edits. There were many rewrites and edits through-out the process, right up until I sent off the final art.

Early thumbnails as I tried to work out the story visually. I did this alongside shaping the text. Again, I wrote notes to myself all over these – change this, change that. These are working roughs, all about getting the idea out onto paper, not about making nice drawings.

Then I did sketches to find my characters. Ellie is based on the little girl I saw so I had her set from early on. The others had to emerge…

These images are from a set of more coherent roughs – I’m still working small, three spreads to an A3 sheet of paper – but I’m getting closer each time to how the book will look. I did at least three versions of the book at this size, copying the images which were working and changing/tweaking/losing others with every layer of reworking.

When I was happy with how it was working I made up a full size dummy and sent a copy to my agent (now I’d make a PDF and send it too). She showed it to Hodder and I had a contract! Yay! This was, I think, mid 2011. The work described above was done in two/three/four week runs, with gaps in between doing other things.

The editors then sent me comments, suggested some changes, pointed out weak spots…

New-Kid-18…and I took most of these onboard as I knew they would improve the book. One or two things I didn’t agree with, so we discussed and compromised, or I left those out. I did another set of full size roughs, there were a few more tweaks and finally…

…a set of ‘finished’ roughs – a set as close as I could get to the final images before going to colour. Last chance for major changes, so everyone looked at them very carefully. I roughed in the text as already planned with the design editor. Text needs to be placed where it reads well, looks well, and is not too near gutters or edges. There needs to be room to allow translations into languages, such as German, which will need more space. As the text in this book is sitting on the images I needed to make sure I didn’t paint fussy texture or dark tones underneath.

It was finally time to begin the finished art:

I worked in acrylics. It was very labour intensive and took about six months to complete – 15 spreads averaging two weeks a piece (some 1 week, some 3), and of course a few hit the bin along the way.

I referenced loads of images as I worked, some to ensure drew the animals/vehicles correctly, others were for colour reference. I had taken many photos a friend’s dog, and of a street in Cobh, other images were from books and the internet.


Then came the endpapers and the cover. The cover is very important as it is what makes people pick up the book in the first place – I’ll blog about that journey another day.

I sent off the art by courier and then a month later a set of colour proofs arrived – my absolute last chance to pick up errors in the text and tweak the colours if any of them looked strange. The colours in the final book will never exactly match the art; the best that can be accomplished is a close match with no odd colours. A few changes were needed – a spelling fix on the title spread, one spread looked rather dark, and the skin tones in two  had gone a little peachy.

The book headed off to China to be printed and bound. It can take six months to a year  to arrive back and be distributed to shops. I got my first copies in May 2014, so it had taken 4 years and 4 months from initial idea through to published book. About 10 months work spread out over that time, it’s hard to tell exactly; I was working on other books in between.


It was a fairly typical picturebook journey for me; other writer/illustrators have different or similar processes and take less or more time. Michael discusses his process here: miss-brooks-story-nook-the-art-part-1

This post is especially for the students and staff at Marino Institute of Education, where I have very much enjoyed being this year’s writer-in-residence.


Dog Blog


Dino was my first dog; he took me from my first year in school to my first year in art college. Named after The Flintstones’ pet dinosaur, Dino was a French poodle. His mum belonged to my Uncle Luke and his gran belonged to my Aunty Kate – a dog-family-within-our-family thing which delighted me no end. Dino hasn’t made it into any of my books (yet) but his ability to kill a rat instantly with one lightning snap did, attributed to another (fictional) dog who was based on another (real) dog. Ah, the creative onion!

Dino was loyal and fiercely protective but a wee bit snippy. Our next family dog, Tags, was an old darling.

TagsHe could be a complete nut and whirl around the house like a tornado, or lean his head on your knee and stare lovingly into your eyes. He sat behind my chair every day while I worked. That quiff of hair standing up on the top of his head was the result of all the petting he got from everyone who ever came into the house! Even my dog-phobic friends loved Tags.

Tags made it into a series of English Readers I illustrated in the 1990s. In the books his name was Patch and he was white with brown splotches, but Patch’s shape and personality and goofy grin were all pure Tags.

I cried for weeks after he died. Even dogs who live decent dog-length lives are here for too short a time, but they can still overlap ours significantly. Tags took me from 18 to 31. My mother was only 54 when we got him – which doesn’t seem at all old to me now. By the time Tags died she was 67 and a widow. He was about 4 when my niece Ann was born. Theirs was a mutual adoration club and she was heart-broken when he died.

I considered writing a book about him, following three generations of women through an eventful thirteen year timespan all in the company of a very special mutt. It’s one of those book ideas that never made it from thought to page; I guess I couldn’t face the emotional journey of trying to capture something so personal. If I’d known what a major success a book about a crazy lovable dog could be, maybe I’d have made a little effort! Some day.


Cara was a rescue dog, and another special hound. Not because he turned out to be an endangered breed, a fact I only discovered when he was 10, but because he, like Tags, had a BIG personality. A personality I tried to catch on paper in my first novel, Timecatcher, where I made him the main character’s dog. He is Duff, the steady friend, the braveheart, and in the end, the hero. Cara died while I was working on the book – that’s five years ago but there are tears in my eyes now as I type.

I painted him into the corner of this endpaper for The New Kid. He’s walking the beach with myself and Michael, off the lead and beside the sea, just as he would have wished.


The other dog who features in The New Kid wasn’t mine; Frankie belonged to a friend. Another rescue mutt, she’d been mistreated and was nervous as hell.


Named for Dear Frankie, Ireland’s radio agony aunt of the 60s and 70s, Frankie-the-dog was so nervous she wouldn’t let me touch her and ran away at my approach. Yet she was so anxious to make friends she kept appearing at the door and coming closer, kept fighting her own fear until she was through it and sitting on my lap as I wrote!

Not surprising then that I used her as the dog in a tale about a group of kids working through their fears and worries to make friends with each other.


Unfortunately Frankie went missing last year and hasn’t been seen since. But I part-dedicated the book to her, wherever she may be. I part-dedicated Timecatcher to Cara so I guess I’d better get working on books for Tags and Dino if I don’t want to be haunted by some small four-legged ghosts… not that the ghost of a good dog could be a bad thing.


Going on the Telly


I’m not a natural when a microphone is clipped on me and the cameras are rolling, so it always helps if the interviewers are well prepped and ask decent questions. On Elev8 the interviewers are friendly and easy-going. Between their own researcher Kate and Aoife at CBI they’d been very well-prepared, so it was almost as if Diana and Sean had read Hagwitch themselves and had been following my career for years!

I had fun hanging out in the greenroom with Hannah (another guest on the show) and her mum. Once the show was live I had to go hide inside the ‘lift’ as I was on after the Chatty Chin. I could hear the various interviews with Eoin Colfer, Derek Landy, Sheena, Siobhán and Oliver while I waited for the ping that signaled it was time to emerge into the studio. I kept taking deep breaths and crossed my fingers that the door wouldn’t stick/I wouldn’t fall over the step as I came out.

The questions came thick and fast, We chatted about winning the CBI Book Award for the fourth time, about both strands of the story in Hagwitch – Flea’s story set in the world of the theatre in Tudor London, and Lally’s, set on the Puppet Theatre Barge in modern London. We also talked a bit about my latest picture book, The New Kid. It was fun and it was all over in a flash!

You can watch the 25 min programme here: The CBI award bit is about 2 mins in. Link will work till June 5th.



I got the idea for my latest picture book, The New Kid, when I saw a young girl in our local coffee shop, The Happy Pear. The girl was wearing a grey coat. There was something about the way she seemed to be using it to stay separate, inside her own world, that really struck me. I made a few sketches and went home, where the basic bones of the idea started to come through immediatley. These sketches are dated 3/1/10, four years ago. The book was published yesterday, 1/5/14.

That’s pretty typical of how long it takes for my ideas to go from spark to published – they rumble around in the background waiting their turn as I work on other things. I pick them up every now and then, turn them over, add, subtract, change. The finished art takes me about six to eight months and the publisher takes a year to turn it into a book, so it all adds up. Technically yesterday was my new book’s ‘birth’ day, but really that was 3/1/10. For me, now is when it leaves home and heads off into the world! Safe travels, little book.


To Trailer or Not to Trailer?



Getting the camera ready to start filming the puppet for Hagwitch trailer

When I came across a book trailer for the first time a few years back my reaction was ‘We need mini movies to sell books now? You’re kidding, right?’

Hot on the heels of that first lot of slick publisher-produced book trailers came a crowd of author-produced trailers.

‘Nooooo,’ I said to Michael. ‘We come up with the ideas, write the books, illustrate the books, run around shops, schools and libraries talking about the books, and now we’re supposed to make trailers for them too? No way, enough already.’

But there’s no ignoring social media and its many possibilities for communicating with a wide audience about our work. For the past six months Michael and myself have been talking about which things we should engage with, which would be the best use our time. Do it all and no books get made.

We’ve decided to do stuff we feel we can do well and, most importantly, will enjoy doing. So we’ll keep doing school/library visits (but not so many that they become a blur) and keep on Face-booking (it’s already an established habit and a great way of keeping up with the children’s book world). We started this joint blog as we both love the idea of focusing on the visual, and keeping one short blog between the two of us has to be more fun and more do-able than keeping a long blog each… at least, that’s the theory!

And now here I am making trailers.

So far it has been really interesting and I’ve learnt loads. There’s been plenty of cursing and yelling at the computer while I grappled with the technical stuff – iMovie is not remotely intuitive – but I think I’ve probably sprouted a few new neural pathways in the process. Creatively, there are similarities to making picturebooks – blending words and images, stripping the idea back to it’s simplest, cutting, cutting and cutting again. The biggest difference is sound – the key element for adding atmosphere and holding the viewer to the screen.

Twitter? Maybe next year.

Niall (our neighbour and sound and music man) records Oisín (also a neighbour) narrating The New Kid trailer

Niall (our neighbour and sound and music man) records Oisín (also a neighbour) narrating The New Kid trailer

Anyone else making their own trailers out there?
What’s your favourite bit of ‘new medja’ – blogs? Twitter? Tumbler?